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Serene for the Moment, the Armory’s retrospective of under-recognized artist Sara Kathryn Arledge (1911–1998), culls from Arledge’s oeuvre of drawings, paintings, and experimental films, as well as numerous writings and studio ephemera. While associated with ciné-dance—choreography devised specifically for film—her work as a whole coalesced around interpretations of movement. Commingling genres, she injected film with an abstract, painterly sensibility, while interlacing painting with film’s affinity for movement and time.
Tracing the artist’s nebulous arc from early figuration to abstraction to her uncanny melting of the two, the exhibition unfolds thematically, privileging a biographical narrative. This precarious curatorial stance frames several personal factors as contributing to Arledge’s waning success, from motherhood to mental illness to McCarthyism. At the same time, by interspersing the artist’s own writings among the wall didactics, this narrative rather tenderly posits Arledge’s work as intimate artifacts excavated from a complex, often interrupted, life.
Several small-scale paintings on paper and shorter animated films accordingly read as unfinished blueprints—brisk, almost harried gestures in search of a formal landing place. The inclusion of storyboards for unrealized films feeds this cursory impression. These discontinuities specifically benefit the paintings. For example, in Untitled (abstract black over color) and Untitled (abstract woman, baby inside) (both 1969), saturated brush strokes compose loose bodily forms that bleed into an unfinished black ground—a confident, gestural brevity that mimics the swiftness of a choreographed action unfolding at a single moment in time.
The film Introspection (1941–46), one of earliest works included in the exhibition, is also arguably the most accomplished. A veritable marriage of painting and filmmaking, it features washy, opalescent layers of disjointed Hans Bellmer-esque bodies dancing from a black void. As a triumph interrupted by external tragedy (the film’s production faltered amidst WWII), it’s also perhaps a bittersweet metaphor for the ebbs and flows of Arledge’s artistic ingenuity as a whole.
While these personal fractures, traceable via the exhibition’s biographical framing, are illuminating, they are also unnecessary. All too often a woman artist’s biographical narrative governs the discourse surrounding her work, tainting the ground for more critical readings. Here, it’s most rewarding to situate Arledge’s work as a pertinent yet overlooked addendum to the historical canon—an intuitive blending of painting and experimental filmmaking that uniquely harnesses each medium’s relationship to gesture and time.
Serene for the Moment runs from January 27–May 12, 2019 at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91103).